Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Megaload case goes to the wire

Posted on Tue, Nov 30, 2010 at 2:27 PM

Do oil giants ever need a Plan B?

ConocoPhillips, which is hoping to ship some enormous refinery equipment from Lewiston to Billings via the narrow and twisty Lolo Pass, is facing a dilemma.

The company shipped two coke drums (manufactured in Japan) to the Port of Lewiston in May and had hoped they would be in Billings by now to replace two aging units at a refinery there. Recently, the company bused 50 refinery workers to a hearing in Boise to plead that jobs were on the line if the shipments were delayed.

The pleas did not sway a special hearing examiner appointed by the Idaho Department of Transportation (ITD), who ruled that residents along Highway 12 have a right to contest the issuance of permits for the staggeringly oversized loads.

So it all comes down to the wire next week. ITD’s hearing on permits is scheduled for Dec. 8-10. with a decision to be announced the following week.

The Corps of Engineers still says barging on the Snake and Columbia Rivers will be suspended for three months beginning Dec. 10 as locks undergo extensive repairs and maintenance.

So do ConocoPhillips employees — with jobs on the line, they say — want to risk their loads being stranded until March? Or are they confident they will prevail?

Attorneys and spokesmen for ConocoPhillips had not responded by deadline.

Oversized loads have long traversed Lolo Pass, but none on the scale of the ConocoPhillips coke drums (and the 207 ExxonMobil pressure vessels lined up behind them at Lewiston, also awaiting permits).

The coke drums, even split in half, are as tall as three-story buildings. They are 25 feet wide and take up both lanes of the highway. Each of the four loads weighs more than 600,000 pounds.

Critics of the megaloads, and even Idaho Supreme Court justices at a recent hearing, have questioned the oil companies’ presumption in shipping loads to Lewiston well in advance of permits being issued.

Residents say they only learned by accident (when power lines along Highway 12 were being raised 30 feet) that ITD and the companies had been discussing the shipments for at least two years.

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